The Boy and the Bathroom
The boy kept his head down, thin arms tightly crossed over his chest as he approached the gas station checkout and, in a small, hoarse voice, asked the attendant for the bathroom key. The attendant barely looked up, wordlessly handing him a large plastic shoehorn with a key dangling from the end of it. He clutched the greasy plastic handle and slipped out, walking with quick, furtive steps through the darkness toward the single unisex bathroom. The door and its cracked plastic sign were barely illuminated beneath a dingy, yellowish light, which had attracted dozens of clumsily cavorting moths. They made gentle, papery noises as they collided repeatedly with the filthy glass shade.
He stood woodenly beneath the light and the moths for a few heart-pounding moments. This was it. It. He'd never come here before, never dared. Somehow he always had a feeling he'd end up here, and the longer he stared at the dented door with the symbol on it, the more he wondered if he'd ever leave this place.
He fumbled for the key and slid it into the lock, carefully turning. He stepped inside, and let the door fall shut behind him. Fluorescent bulbs flickered inhospitably overhead. A graveyard of moths littered the inside of the fixture. He set the key with its absurd shoehorn attachment on the edge of the sink, and took a large step back, leaning against the wall. He looked around the tiny room, studying everything. The mirror was heavily spattered and smudged, and cracked in several places. There was graffiti scribbled all over the walls--names, phone numbers, swears, obscene drawings. On the floor just behind the nearly overflowing trash can was the pathetic, shriveled form of a used condom. He shuffled forward and leaned curiously over the trash can, not really knowing why. He poked one layer of crumpled paper towels aside, and there was a used needle lying there. Near it was a yellow Bic lighter, which he picked up, again not knowing why, and clutched in his hand. It felt mostly empty, but there were probably a few drops of fuel left in it.
Finally, he turned to face the toilet. The tank lid was cracked, one corner of it completely missing. Someone had stuck a used Band-Aid on the side. The plastic flusher handle was slightly discoloured, preserving the history of thousands of dirty hands touching it. The seat and inside of the bowl were in a similar state. It didn't look like something anyone who wasn't desperate or really out of it would use.
His mother had probably been both desperate and out of it when she'd come in here almost 15 years ago.
He blinked rapidly. At moments, it almost seemed as if he could see blood streaking the inside of the bowl and ribboning through the water.
What had she done with the umbilical cord and the other gross stuff that came out? Left it in the toilet? Thrown it in this trash can? Or had paramedics come to help her with that?
These thoughts and so many others whirled in his head as he stood there staring into the toilet water.
This was where everything had begun, and on some level, he'd always figured it would come full circle. There had been times, particularly after coming down from a high, that he'd thought about it directly--like, maybe if he could get a really big score, he'd bring it here, sit on this very toilet and shoot it all at once, go out with a bang and exit the same way he came in. This was what he was born to, and for--this shithole littered with used condoms and drug needles. This was his life. Was there really any chance he'd ever escape it? The moments he'd tried to enjoy his foster home just seemed stupid now. It was an idiotic pipe dream, the idea that he could ever claw his way out of this cycle. He was even craving heroin again, for the first time in months.
He stepped backward and felt his back connect with the wall. The strength seeped from his legs, and he sank down and curled up on the floor, tears finally beginning to break free. He didn't want to go back to that foster home, where a couple of strangers acted like they cared. He hadn't been ready to leave juvie, where he was surrounded by kids just like him, and every moment of his day was strictly controlled by someone in a uniform. He wasn't ready to step out into the world and come to terms with how pointless everything was, how futile any attempt to transcend what he'd come out of. He didn't want to be free. Freedom was the worst thing he could imagine right now. Freedom was like being five years old and lost in a place you'd never been before, where everyone is a stranger. Freedom was like being in a little boat in the middle of an ocean, with no land in sight. Freedom was that horrible feeling of stepping off a curb between awake and asleep, and for a split second being sure you're going to have a terrible fall.
The boy sobbed bitterly, clutching the Bic lighter tightly in his hand. He thought about using it--setting the trash can on fire. It would burn. There was enough dry paper. He could go down, taking this whole place with him. Or, at the very least, prove he was a bad boy who did bad things, so they didn't want to let him go free anymore.
He sniffled noisily, hiccuped, and looked down at the lighter, placing his thumb on the spark wheel.
Click... click... click....
After about ten tries, a little flame popped up. He stared at its refracted image through tear-blurred eyes.
There was a sharp knock on the door. Only now did he notice the faint flashes of blue-and-red filtering through the narrow crack at the bottom of the door.
"Open up, kiddo," said a deep, authoritative voice on the other side. "I know you're in there, now don't make me bust this door down."
The boy shivered and sobbed, the sound of the cop's voice cutting through his confusion and emotional overwhelm. The voice was familiar. He knew exactly who was there. The same cop who always seemed to know where he was. The same cop who'd turned everything upside down for him that one time, busted him and his mom and made sure he couldn't ever go home again. There was no real home anymore. There was only this room. It was his past, and his future.
His destiny, somehow.
As a dog returns to its vomit...
That phrase kept coming back to him. He wasn't sure where he'd picked it up, but it drifted around in his head, reluctant to leave, just as he was reluctant to leave this place.
He sobbed again and looked at the dented door as the knock sounded once more, louder this time. The entire door shuddered. The boy knew the cop wasn't kidding--he would bust it open. Put another dent in it.
Sniffling, the boy pushed himself up, wavering unsteadily for a moment. He threw the lighter back in the trash, and took a step toward the door just long enough to unlock it before he shrank back and sat on the floor again, curling up into a shivering ball of sobs.
The door swung open, and the boy heard the cop's heavy boots approach. He'd never cried in front of the cop before, and he was ready for the big man to just yank him to his feet and back to his cruiser. Maybe he could kick the guy a few times, try to take his gun. Assaulting a cop was a pretty big deal. That would get him back into juvie. But how could he assault a cop when he was crying his eyes out?
Instead of grabbing hold of him, the cop sat down next to him with a sigh. They were sort of shoulder-to-shoulder, but the boy had always been small for his age--his thin shoulder barely reached the man's bicep.
"Your foster parents are pretty worried about you," the cop said. His voice still carried authority, but it was a little softer than the voice he normally used. "What is this? You running away? You're too old for that shit, kid. They do something you don't like?"
The boy shrugged weakly. His breath hitched a few times. "I d-don't belong there," he sobbed.
"And you belong... where? Here?"
The cop's voice was skeptical, but the boy immediately nodded with enough vehemence to make himself a little dizzy. "Don't you see?" he burst out, his voice trembling even as he tried to shout, to be angry. He breathed through his mouth in shaky little huffs as he tried to calm down enough to speak a little more. "I've never come here before, but... now that I'm here... I know I belong here. This is me, the real me. When I was in that house with those... people... it was like I was trying to be someone else. I can't be someone else forever, can I? You can make me go with them again but I'll probably just come back here and I don't think I'm ever gonna leave!"
The boy wasn't sure he was making any sense. When the cop didn't reply for a while, he was sure he'd just been spouting gibberish. Then, the man spoke up again, his voice even softer now: "Hey--can I put my arm around you?"
The boy was taken aback at first. All sorts of defensive questions whirled through his mind: Why? What for? Are you a perv? Are you going to hurt me? Are you going to trick me? Why would you want to touch me? Instead of asking any of them, he replied in a vague mumble, "If you want, I guess."
The boy didn't usually let anyone touch him. He didn't know why he consented. Maybe just because the guy was a cop, and cops did what they wanted no matter what. He was even more confused as to why the strong arm that wrapped around his shoulders triggered a fresh flood of tears. He found himself leaning slightly into the cop, shaking with sobs. The man gave him a few minutes before speaking again.
"Why here, kiddo? Why is this who you are?"
The boy was too humiliated to reply at first. He waited until he could speak without his voice breaking. "This... this is where I was born. That toilet right there. Mom... didn't know she was pregnant. I just... fell right in. Sometimes I wake up cold... thinking I can actually remember it."
The cop's grip on him tightened a little. One big hand rubbed his back a little, up and down. The contact was strange and gave him odd feelings. The boy had experienced many touches in his short life, but not like this. Touches from an adult were controlling, punitive, painful, ugly. There were touches that pushed him out of the way, touches that yanked him back where he was supposed to be. There were touches that hurt and stung, that bruised, burned, and scarred. There were touches that made him feel gross, embarrassed, and wrong, touches that made him want to crawl into a dark hole and never come out.
This touch was different. When he allowed himself to relax into it, he gradually realized it was safe. It was comfort. Comfort was new, and disorienting.
The boy pressed a little closer, and sniffled. More words came that he didn't expect: "Maybe it's weird that I came here to see this place, knowing... but I've always felt it calling to me, kinda like the drugs. I don't want this life, but I feel like it's stuck to me. Like when someone writes on you with a Sharpie and it won't wash off."
The cop sighed. "Kid... what you came from doesn't have to be who you are," he said softly, but with conviction. "Believe me... if you knew what I came out of, you'd know. You don't have to forget this place, but if you choose to, you can walk out of here right now and never look back."
The boy opened his eyes and stared across the room at the toilet. Blue and red lights danced across its porcelain surface. He closed his eyes, and could still only see blood. "What if it doesn't let go? I thought about burning this place down. Just annihilating it for good."
"Mm-hm," the cop murmured, still rubbing his back slowly. "Arson's a pretty serious crime. You wanna go back to juvie?"
"Yeah," the boy admitted feebly. "Things were... easier there, somehow."
"Mm-hm. Now that you're out, you don't really know what direction you're going in. And if things go totally off the rails, you've got no one to blame now but yourself. Is that right?"
His face burned with embarrassment when he realized the older man could see right through him, especially when he scarcely understood his own behaviour or emotions. He made no response, but he knew his silence was answer enough.
"Kiddo... you're still so young. You don't have to have everything figured out, and you certainly don't have to let other people's mistakes dictate the rest of your life. This place has no power over you if you choose not to allow it. There are people who actually have your back in this broken world. People who want to give you a home, and a fresh start."
The boy sighed. "They don't really care. They'll dump me back into CPS's hands as soon as they realize how fucked up I am. I don't belong in their house. I don't know how to act around people who don't yell, and who eat meals at an actual table, and live in such a clean and quiet place. It's so fucking quiet, I can barely sleep! Everything smells nice... and I...."
The cop gave him a gentle squeeze as his voice broke. "Shhh," he soothed. "They care more than you realize. And you do belong. It'll just take some time to get over the culture shock. How about giving them another chance, hm?"
The boy looked up, blinking the blur of tears from his eyes so he could meet the man's gaze. "You really think they're like... for real?"
"For real," the man confirmed. "They know a lot about you--the good, the bad, and the ugly. And they still want to love you and be your parents. I think you'd be an idiot to throw this opportunity away just to prove to everyone that you're a bad kid. I don't think you're a bad kid, and neither do they. You've had a tough break in life, and now you're getting a leg up. I get that it's hard to trust in anything or anyone after what you've been through, but if you take a leap, I'm sure they won't let you down."
The boy was silent as he absorbed the words, and the warm contact. Was it possible? Was it really, actually possible?
After a few minutes, he allowed himself to be helped up, and guided toward the door of the foul little gas station bathroom that he'd thought was his destiny. Knuckling away the remains of his tears, he stood at the threshold and looked back. Dawn had risen while he'd been wallowing here, and soft, golden light now streamed through the doorway, washing away a little of the oppressive darkness within, as if to break a spell. He could still picture his mother here, could still picture the blood. But the image of himself here, with his heroin, ending things exactly where he'd begun, seemed more distant.
He stood up a little bit straighter as they walked away from that bathroom. He expected to be led toward the police cruiser, but instead the cop guided him in another direction. Now he could see the familiar white hatchback belonging to his foster parents, and next to it, the couple, who had been standing there waiting, with their arms around each other. They looked worn and haggard after a full night of worry and tears, but now they brightened significantly as they recognized him, and quickly approached.
The boy had never felt so embarrassed. He had no way to explain to them why he'd left, or why he'd come here. The things he'd said to the cop seemed like sacred things that couldn't be repeated. Those were words that perhaps needed to be left behind, in that bathroom. In his mind he could immolate all of it with that little yellow Bic lighter, removing that room and its sinister hold on him for good.
They reached for him, and for the first time, he went to them without flinching or questioning. He let them embrace him as he'd let the cop embrace him, and he was crying again. They were crying too. The scents of sweet vanilla, fabric softener, and aftershave surrounded him, and he decided that it was possible he could get used to this.
As the car left the gas station, he watched out the window, silently bidding it farewell. The farther they drove, the more he could feel himself shedding that place like an old skin, each sinister tentacle of its hold on him weakening and dropping away, leaving him feeling lighter than he ever had. A smile appeared on the boy's lips. He was going to have waffles for breakfast.